Off-net prospects dicey
Rapid turnover of network shows thins the ranks of syndication candidates
By Joe Schlosser -- Broadcasting & Cable, 1/6/2002 7:00:00 PM
The off-network–sitcom pipeline isn't what is used to be. With reality, unscripted series and game shows taking up more and more of the prime time landscape, hit sitcoms are becoming harder and harder to come by on broadcast TV these days.
"Can you name the last big sitcom hit on any of the networks?" asks Bill Carroll, vice president and director of programming at Katz TV Group.
"Outside of Everybody Loves Raymond, none of the networks have had huge hits on the comedy side for quite some time now. And for you to have a good solid syndicated sitcom, you have to have four or five solid years on a network. Most shows these days are here and gone in a heartbeat."
Seinfeld, which hasn't aired on NBC in three years and is currently in its second cycle in syndication, continues to dominate the off-net ratings.
Friends, which debuted on NBC well before reality TV caught on, is sharing the top spot.
Also, Everybody Loves Raymond, which launched this season in off-net syndication, is quickly climbing the charts.
And all three series may continue to rule the roost in syndication over the next several seasons because station and industry executives say that what's coming down the pipe on the off-network front is a mixed bag at best.
Four new off-network sitcom offerings will debut this fall. Warner Bros. is selling Will & Grace, Twentieth TV has cleared both The Hughleys and Dharma & Greg, and Carsey-Werner is bringing out That '70s Show.
Also coming for the 2002-03 season are off-HBO runs of The Larry Sanders Show from Columbia TriStar and off-MTV series Road Rules from October Moon.
"I think a lot of stations held their breath on Everybody Loves Raymond, and it's doing sensational," says Carsey-Werner syndication head Bob Raleigh.
"And I think the next big one stations are looking for is That '70s Show," he adds. "The other offerings for next season, they have all started to wane a little on the network, while '70s Show keeps growing."
Of course, Raleigh likes to point that out.
As for fall 2003, only one off-network sitcom has officially been launched: Paramount's Becker.
Columbia TriStar is expected to bring out fellow CBS Monday-night comedy King of Queens for 2003, but studio executives aren't commenting.
Twentieth TV executives are also deciding whether to hold what Carroll says could be the most promising off-net offering over the next several years—Malcolm in the Middle—for either 2003 or 2004.
"Becker's strength is certainly men," says Paramount Domestic TV President John Nogawski. "What we highlight in our presentation to stations is the amount of men it's brought to CBS on Monday nights. Young men who are normally watching football or wrestling or those types of shows have all come to Becker."
After 2003-04, the off-network pipeline pickings get even slimmer.
"With few exceptions, there seems to be a lot of potential product, but none of the product has exhibited break-through potential," says Carroll.
"We may end up with a pretty long list," he continues, "but probably with the exception of My Wife & Kids, none of the other shows have established themselves or are perceived to be break-out hits. That doesn't mean they couldn't out to be, but right now it doesn't look too promising."
As for off-network dramas, the cable networks have all but taken over the Monday-Friday side of the business. Blockbuster deals for The West Wing (Bravo), CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (TNN) and other one-hour series have all but taken local stations out of the weekday-drama game.
But almost all the dramas do come to weekend syndication.
Dawson's Creek and Charmed will likely be made available for weekend play this fall, and a number of dramas including The West Wing and Providence are coming in 2003.
|The off-network sitcom timetable|
|*Could be 2003 or 2004
**Likely available in 2004; no official date set
|Dharma & Greg||Twentieth TV||Fall 2002|
|That '70s Show||Carsey-Werner||Fall 2002|
|The Hughleys||Twentieth TV||Fall 2002|
|Will & Grace||Warner Bros.||Fall 2002|
|The Larry Sanders Show||Columbia TriStar||Fall 2002|
|Road Rules||October Moon||Fall 2002|
|King Of Queens||Columbia TriStar||Fall 2003|
|Malcolm in the Middle||Twentieth TV||Fall 2003*|
|Family Guy||Twentieth TV||Fall 2004**|
|Futurama||Twentieth TV||Fall 2004**|
|The Parkers||Paramount||Fall 2004**|
|For Your Love||Warner Bros.||Fall 2004**|
|Nikki||Warner Bros.||Fall 2004**|
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